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Mandatory Life Sentences

Volume 229: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how he intends to implement the House of Lords judgment in R. v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Smart, Pegg, Doody and Pierson, given on 24 June.

The current procedures governing the release of persons convicted of murder and sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment are described in statements made in 1983 and 1987 by two of my predecessors as Secretary of State, the right hon. Sir Leon Brittan and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) respectively.Under those procedures, shortly after a person has received a mandatory life sentence, the Secretary of State invites the judiciary to give its views on the period to be served to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence. The judiciary's views presently comprise the advice of the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice. Their advice is one factor among others which the Secretary of

crimes which in the case of an adult would carry a sentence of 14 years or more, should be detained in a place to be determined by the Secretary of State for periods not exceeding the maximum period of imprisonment which could be imposed on an adult for those offences.

The Government are currently reviewing the adequacy of these provisions. Offenders in this age group may be detained, if the Secretary of State so decides, in secure accommodation managed either by local authorities, or by the youth treatment service or by the Prison Service. Information, available only for years since 1979, relating to the detention of 10 to 15-year-olds under section 53 after conviction for specific offences is given in the table.

State considers before he sets the date for the first review by the Parole Board of the case for releasing the prisoner on licence.

This review is timed to take place three years before the expiry of the minimum period which the Secretary of State considers necessary to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence or, where that period is 20 years or more, 17 years after sentence.

At present, a prisoner is not told the contents of the judicial recommendation, nor the length of the period which the Secretary of State has determined to be the minimum necessary to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence. However, where the period so determined is less than 20 years, the prisoner can deduce its length by adding three years to the date which he is given for his first review; and where it is 20 years, he can deduce its length from the terms of the notice informing him that his first review will take place 17 years after sentence. But where the period is more than 20 years, the prisoner is not able to establish its total length.

The House of Lords judgment requires me to inform the prisoner of the recommendations made by the judiciary as to the period necessary to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence and of the substance of any opinions expressed by the judiciary which are relevant to my decision as to the appropriate minimum period to be served to satisfy those requirements. In addition, I am required to afford the prisoner the opportunity to submit written representations. Although I am not required to adopt the judicial advice, I must give reasons where I or a Minister acting under my authority decides to depart from it.

I propose to give effect to this judgment by informing all persons who are now serving a mandatory life sentence and any persons who may subsequently be so sentenced, as soon as is reasonably practicable, of the substance of the judicial recommendations which were made in their case as to the period to be served by them in order to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence. I am consulting the Lord Chief Justice about the precise way in which this will be done.

In addition, I have decided to disclose to both existing and future mandatory life sentence prisoners the Secretary of State's decision, taken after consideration of the judicial advice, on the appropriate period in question.

In accordance with the judgment, reasons will be given to the prisoner for any departure from the judicial view.

As the judgment makes clear, successive Secretaries of State have been, and I continue to be, willing to consider any written representations by prisoners as to the minimum period to be served by them to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence. In future, prisoners will be afforded the opportunity to submit such written representations at the beginning of the sentence and before I have formed a view as to the minimum period for retribution and deterrence.

I take this opportunity to emphasise that the view which I or a Minister acting under my authority takes, at the beginning of a mandatory life sentence, of the period necessary to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence is an initial view of the minimum period necessary to satisfy those requirements. It therefore remains possible for me, or a future Secretary of State, exceptionally to revise that view of the minimum period, either by reducing it, or by increasing it where I, or a successor in my office, concludes that, putting aside questions of risk, the minimum requirements of retribution and deterrence will not have been satisfied at the expiry of the period which had previously been determined.

Before taking a decision to increase this minimum period, the Secretary of State would inform the prisoner that he was minded to take this action and afford him the opportunity to submit written representations as to why the period should not be increased. Any such representations would then be taken into account before any new decision was made. If it were decided to increase the period in question, the prisoner would be informed of the length of the new period and given the reasons for the increase.

Finally, I wish to state that a mandatory life sentence prisoner should not assume that once the minimum period fixed for retribution and deterrence has been satisfied he will necessarily be released if it is considered that he is no longer a risk. In this respect, the position of a prisoner subject to a mandatory life sentence is to be contrasted with that of a prisoner serving a discretionary life sentence. As the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), stated in the House on 16 July 1991 during debates on the Criminal Justice Bill:

"In a discretionary case, the decision on release is based purely on whether the offender continues to be a risk to the public. The presumption is that once the period that is appropriate to punishment has passed, the prisoner should be released if it is safe to do so. The nature of the mandatory sentence is different. The element of risk is not the decisive factor in handing down a life sentence. According to the judicial process, the offender has committed a crime of such gravity that he forfeits his liberty to the State for the rest of his days—if necessary, he can be detained for life without the necessity for subsequent judicial intervention. The presumption is, therefore, that the offender should remain in custody until and unless the Home Secretary concludes that the public interest would be better served by the prisoner's release than by his continued detention. In exercising his continued discretion in that respect, the Home Secretary must take account, not just of the question of risk, but of how society as a whole would view the prisoner's release at that juncture. The Home Secretary take account of the judicial recommendation, but the final decision is his."—[Official Report, 16 July 1991; Vol. 193, c. 311–12.]

I wish to make it clear that, in so far as the judgment of the House of Lords considered that there was inconsistency between the practice established by Sir Leon Brittan in 1983 and that statement by my right hon. Friend, I wholly endorse the latter as a desciption of the way in which I currently exercise my discretion to release mandatory life sentence prisoners and intend to do so in future.

Accordingly, before any such prisoner is released on licence, I will consider not only (a) whether the period served by the prisoner is adequate to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence and (b)whether it is safe to release the prisoner, but also (c) the public acceptability of early release. This means that I will exercise my discretion to release only if I am satisfied that to do so will not threaten the maintenance of public confidence in the system of criminal justice.

Everything that I have said about the practice of the Secretary of State in relation to mandatory life sentence prisoners applies equally to persons who are, or will be, detained during Her Majesty's pleasure under section 53(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, as well as to persons who have been, or will be, sentenced to custody for life under section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982.